SHANTOU, China–Even as top Communist Party leaders in Beijing still permit no national memorial to the decade of chaos and political violence that was the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), officials in Guangdong have quietly built a museum honoring those who died in the southern province.
The museum, which is privately financed and advertises only discreetly on the Internet, sits at the top of Tashan, a mountain where many of the Cultural Revolution dead from the nearby city of Shantou were buried.
“During the Cultural Revolution attacks and beatings were commonplace; the graves over there are all marked with the names of those who were ‘struggled against’ and killed during the Cultural Revolution,” a man who witnessed the struggle sessions told RFA’s Mandarin service.
“The factional fighting in Shantou was widespread,” said the man, who now plies a motorcycle taxi service for visitors to the museum at the top of the grave-strewn hill.
“Every official in Shantou was dragged out into public and ‘struggled against,’” he told RFA reporter Lin Di. “Throughout the course of these struggle sessions all of these officials were either beaten to death or shot and killed.”
Every official in Shantou was dragged out into public and ‘struggled against’. Throughout the course of these struggle sessions all of these officials were either beaten to death or shot and killed.
According to official records, during the Cultural Revolution in Shantou roughly 100,000 people were implicated in criminal cases, more than 4,500 were injured or disabled, and some 400 people died.
Of these, 70 are buried in graves all sizes scattered around the slopes of Tashan, including one common grave where 28 people are buried together.
The idea of the museum began in 1996, when Peng Qi’an, a former adviser to the Shantou municipal government, visited the area and saw all the graves scattered around the slopes of Tashan.
Peng began contacting people who had had similarly bitter experiences during the Cultural Revolution. Many of these contacts were government officials, and the concept of some kind of Cultural Revolution memorial gradually began to develop.
Ten years later, the completed museum includes the Mountain Hall of Historical Reflection, the Yowl Alarm Bell, the Stone-Carved Book of History, the Tranquil Thought Pagoda, and several other scenic spots.
The symbolically significant Mountain Hall of Historical Reflection, a 21-meter construction based on Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, houses black carved images inlaid on all four walls showing events from the Cultural Revolution period.
Because official accounts of the period are unavailable, the carvings were based on an illustrated volume published in Hong Kong called “Cultural Revolution Museum” that documents the various phases of the Cultural Revolution including its origin, the roles of idolatry and mass criticism, the “seizing power” movement, “verbal attack and armed defense,” the reeducation movement, high-level injustices, and many more.
Many places around Tashan are engraved with the words of the late former Guangdong provincial Party secretary Ren Zhongyi, who is remembered as a liberal reformer. “Take history as a mirror, and never again allow the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution to repeat itself,” his inscription reads.
Museum staff were circumspect about ascribing any wider significance to the museum, however. China has yet to authorize any national event in memory of this period in the nation’s history, and many still bear the scars of that time in silence.
Asked if the museum had an educational role to play, an administrative official from the museum said: “If you say the museum has an educational mission then it does; if you don’t think it has educational significance then it doesn’t.”
“It all depends on how visitors feel after they come here and have a look for themselves, and many of these visitors have said that they came away with a deeper understanding of the Cultural Revolution,” he added.
But he was keen to play up the commercial and tourist purpose of the site. “First and foremost, this is a tourist area and any tourist area must have something that tourists will want to come and see. If you come and spend five yuan on a ticket, when you go inside you can look at whatever you want.”
“After you’re done looking, if you have any feelings about what you saw, well, that’s your business,” he said.
Among the visitors was a group of young people who said they had heard very little about the Cultural Revolution, which is touched upon only in a superficial manner in China’s schools.
“Of course it has significance, but I think they need to expand the scale of the museum and advertise it a little better,” a young woman in her late teens said. “The museum is really quite good, only many people don’t even realize it exists.”
Saying that she had learned about the museum on the Internet, she added: “I read about the museum during…[the] anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, and now I’ve come here for the first time to see the museum…It really felt like I was seeing it for the first time.”
Chinese commentators say that while the Cultural Revolution has been given an official interpretation as a mistake of the Gang of Four and Mao Zedong, very little has been done to heal the wounds of the past, when neighbors, colleagues, and families denounced, attacked, and even killed one another in a frenzy of mass campaigning.
Last month, a Chinese woman who said her father was tortured to death by Guangdong police during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) petitioned legislators in Hong Kong over his death, hoping to win publicity for her case, which she said was being blocked in mainland China by local officials anxious that the details should stay untold.
Yao Kang, 55, arrived in Hong Kong on a seven-day tourist visa from mainland China, which has a completely separate judicial and political system from the former British colony, hoping to use the city as a stage to air her grievance, which has dragged on for more than 30 years.
“Last year a lot of South Korean farmers came to Hong Kong to present their complaints, and that made me think that maybe I could come here and … make use of this as a stage to present my father’s grievance in a place that has some respect for human rights, for justice,” Yao told RFA’s Cantonese service.
“Because everybody wants equality. They want their rights to be respected. Why should we be the only ones who have no access to justice?”
Yao’s father, Yao Shan, was a native of Haifeng county, Guangdong province who joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1936.
He held office in the county branch of the Party until his imprisonment by the National Kuomintang (KMT) in 1945. He was persecuted during the anti-Rightist campaigns as a KMT traitor and expelled from the Party.
He died while in police custody during a Cultural Revolution campaign in 1975 and was rehabilitated in 1979.
“The Guangdong provincial public security department was ordered to investigate this case of my father’s unlawful death, but they still covered it up, and produced a fake report,” she said.
Officials in Guangdong couldn’t be reached to comment on Yao Kang’s complaint.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Lin Di and in Cantonese by Sandy Fung. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. RFA Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated from Cantonese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Mandarin translation by Frederic Vellucci. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.